The Sixth Sense came out in 1999. I was 5 years old (almost 6). I don’t remember very much from that time, but I do vividly remember watching this film for the first time and being absolutely chilled to the bone. It has always taken a lot to scare me. I was raised on the horror genre. I can remember staying up late at night, clinging to my covers and craving the adrenaline rush that came with watching a really bone-chilling scary movie. But The Sixth Sense terrified me. Not because it was violent or gory, but because The Sixth Sense was subtle. Its terror came not from violence, gore, or cheap scares, but from a deeply unsettling sense of isolation and loneliness shared by Cole and Malcolm.
And that ending. Wow. Of course I’m going to talk about the ending. I was so taken by the story, so enchanted and spellbound by Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment’s performances that I didn’t see the big twist coming at all. Did anyone, really? The Sixth Sense has become something of a gold standard when it comes to pulling off a shock ending. The closing reveal takes everything that you thought you knew about the film and flips it upside down. Viewers are led to believe that The Sixth Sense would wrap up predictably, with both doctor and patient learning a lot from each other and moving forward with that new knowledge guiding them, and that would have been all right. But when it’s finally revealed that Dr. Malcolm Crowe was a ghost all along, things that previously hadn’t made much sense suddenly fit together like an intricate, carefully assembled puzzle. The end of The Sixth Sense was an epiphany. It was a good old eyes-wide-open-mouth-on-the-ground surprise, and it was executed with the ease and confidence of a director who clearly knew what he was doing.
M. Night Shyamalan.
Yeah. He made this movie. Really. And his involvement is perhaps the most interesting thing about The Sixth Sense‘s lasting legacy. The film’s place in cultural memory is almost universally positive. Mention The Sixth Sense in a room full of movie fans and you’re probably going to get a pretty favorable reaction. People love this movie. They still quote it. They still talk about it. There’s never really been a time when The Sixth Sense wasn’t relevant. If a buddy hasn’t seen The Sixth Sense, people are going to have that loud, “Are you kidding me?! You haven’t lived!” reaction.
But say M. Night Shyamalan’s name in a room of cinephiles and you’re going to get a very different outcry. While The Sixth Sense has held onto its glory and become something of a household name as far as popular film culture goes, Shyamalan’s career has taken what can only be described as a bumbling, awkward, downright embarrassing nosedive. After a string of bad films and the absolute travesty that was The Last Airbender, Shyamalan has essentially lost any credibility that he once had as a director. And what a shame. At one point, Shyamalan’s name on a film would have inspired me to see it; now, his name tells me exactly what to avoid.
Despite his current standing in the film world, Shyamalan made something decidedly special with The Sixth Sense. Sure, the acting was strong, and the final twist was jarring and cleverly written, but a lot of what solidified The Sixth Sense‘s high standing in modern culture can be accredited to Shyamalan’s steady directorial hand.
Shyamalan never talked down to his audience. The big twist payed off as well as it does because the film never relied solely on it. This was a good movie no matter what, with or without that shock factor. Even if Malcolm Crowe hadn’t been a ghost the entire time, this film would have been reviewed favorably. It might not have been remembered as fondly as it is today, but it would have still been a solid film that was built around an interesting and engaging relationship.
At its core, The Sixth Sense was never just another good horror movie. It’s a film that found a way to tap into serious themes of detachment, isolation, fear, and exile by looking through a child’s eyes. And what expressive eyes they are. Often, viewers weren’t shown the things that Cole could see, but the unfiltered terror on his small face was sincere enough to induce a bone-chilling sense of dread.
There are lines from this film that I still think of and shudder, and while the classic, “I see dead people,” line is what most think of when they remember this film, for me it’s the smaller things. The quieter things.
It’s Cole waking up in the middle of the night, terrified to even walk down the hallway to use the bathroom.
It’s a hushed conversation in a church.
It’s a red balloon, floating up a staircase until it can go no higher. Trapped. Like Cole in his loneliness. Like Malcolm in his ghostly existence.
The terror of The Sixth Sense was real, and it lasts. Fifteen years later, this remains one of my favorite horror films. I think it always will.